The frontiers of the world breed many men of John Audubon’s ilk: footloose, intemperate, experimental, in questionable standing with the law. He is better known today for the conservation society that bears his name—a group that began as a birdwatching organization and evolved into a powerful lobbying force—than for his singular contributions to American science, and he is remembered as something of a backwoods nobleman rather than, at least in many of his ventures, as a nearly destitute failure.
In her life of the much-documented artist, historian, and novelist Shirley Streshinsky aims to layer blood and flesh on a man shrouded by romantic mystery (much of it created by Audubon himself). She is particularly successful in gathering the facts about the young Audubon, the well-traveled but somewhat wild son of a French career naval officer who found his life’s calling in the pages of Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle (someone, someday, will write a history of that massive work, which in its way was as influential as Das Kapital) and in the life studies by Jean-Baptiste Oudry, who took pains to depict animals as they appeared in nature, rather than as static models adorning Doric columns as was the fashion of the day. Until his 11th year John James—or, rather, Jean Rabin, his birthname—had the freedom of the woods and fields, before his father, sensing that the boy needed discipline, impressed him into service as a cabin boy.
The younger Audubon had little talent for the military arts, and he failed the entrance exam for admission to the regular navy. His obliging father, who must have been a rarity, allowed him to return to a state of nature, so to speak, until he reached the age of 17, whereupon Jean Rabin was sent to America to attend to the elder Audubon’s business interests. Jean Rabin’s departure was made all the more hasty by Napoleon’s rise to power and the new imperial army’s need for conscripts to make the long trek to Moscow, and he soon found himself not far from New York City, ostensibly managing a lead mine.
This was the first time John James, as he now called himself, failed financially in the New World; it would not be the last. His is the familiar tale of naiveté matched with an unscrupulous business partner; in any case the young man spent his days wandering abroad with gun and easel, shooting and then painting the great American aviary that lay before him.
When the United States declared war on Great Britain in 1812, the newly wed Audubon traveled to Philadelphia to swear allegiance to his adoptive country, then quit the seaboard to found a trading post and small farm on the other side of the Appalachians. “Lucy and John Audubon,” Streshinsky notes, “took no stand against the institution of slavery; in 1814 they bought nine blacks. . . . ” Audubon enjoyed married life, but he yearned to head for the deeper woods. Streshinsky does not make enough of his wanderlust, which seems unusually pronounced even for so mobile a society as that in which he lived.
Indeed, Streshinsky does not pay sufficient attention to frontier life generally and especially to such cruel realities as those John Mack Faragher has described in his life of Daniel Boone, to whom Audubon has so often been compared. The American West was the realm not of proud Hawkeyes but of often murderous refugees from east of the Fall Line, a nesting ground for disenfranchised Border Scots and revenge-bent natives alike. That Audubon was able to survive in this hard country was a sign less of his abilities as a frontiersman than of his knowledge of how to skirt trouble, how to stay a mile ahead of pursuing creditors. That Audubon should eventually quit the frontier for city life was inevitable: he wandered his share of trails while cultivating an image with every step he took.
In early middle age John James elected to divide his time between a townhouse in New Orleans, where he could paint likenesses of society ladies and tutor youngsters in art and French, and the bayous of the Mississippi delta. The arrangement seems to have worked well enough, for although the Audubons were in constant danger of penury he was somehow still able to complete the work for, and sec to the publication of, his monumental Birds of America. (To coincide with Streshinsky’s biography, Villard Books has issued an edition of that great work at the quite reasonable price of $75.00.) Just how much time he was now spending in the field is anyone’s guess, although his study of a mockingbird imperiled by a tree-climbing rattlesnake suggests that he was not above inventing incidents. Ilerpetologists will tell you that rattlesnakes cannot climb beyond their body length, and Audubon immediately came under criticism for the painting.
Birds of America, Streshinsky notes, brought Audubon European fame, and he sailed off to England to enjoy it. He must have been a sight: a tall, longhaired, angular man dressed in buckskins and moccasins on the High Street could not help but excite attention. He might have been forgiven for falling into indolence, yet another frontier celebrity, but Audubon soon grew impatient with the company of fellow hunters like Sir Walter Scott and returned to America, noting to himself, “I must put myself in a train of doing . . . and thereby keep the machine in motion.” For the rest of his days—he lived to the age of 68—John James Audubon worked to revise Birds of America and complete its companion. Ornithological Biography. By applying himself so vigorously to this and other work, Audubon was able for the first time to earn a decent livelihood.
In Audubon: Life and Art in the American Wilderness, Shirley Streshinsky does not shy away from contemporary criticisms of Audubon, notably his having slaughtered thousands of birds to serve as subjects for his palette. She also reminds her readers, however, that it does us little good to judge past actions solely by contemporary morality and that Audubon himself understood the error of his ways when the birds became fewer and fewer. For all his faults, John James Audubon looms large on the American frontier. His brilliance as an artist and naturalist merits him a permanent place in the national memory, and Streshinsky’s book, for all its shortcomings, is a worthy testament to it.
[Audubon: Life and Art in the American Wilderness, by Shirley Streshinsky (New York: Villard Books) 407 pp., $25.00]